Scioto Voice


New album gives opportunity, to reflect on Free's career


'Every day, somewhere in the world, a Steve Free 'song is being played on the radio'


By Jeremy D. Wells, Scioto Voice Writer


By Jeremy D. Wells, Scioto Voice Writer

Steve Free has had an interesting career.  One that includes four decades of work as a touring musician and recording artist, awards, accolades, and recognition from his home state as an "artistic treasure". Steve has been blessed to do what most of Lis only dream of. He's made a living doing what he loves.. But that doesn't mean he hasn't dream bigger. One of the earliest entries into the mish-mash musical genre known as Americana, a category that includes acts like the Avett Brothers, Old Crow Medicine. Show, and crossover artists like Tom Petty Steve Freeand John Mellencamp, Free leans a little more folk. But at a time when pure folk still doesn't enjoy fantastic commercial success, he's flown just a little under the radar, Charting, but well under folks like "Petty and Mellencamp, Winning a. Platinum award for, International Airplay, based on global radio play, but, never quite matching that popularity in sales, Going, through some of the achievements with me at my request, he indicated the Grammy nominations, framed on the wall.

"They say it's an honor just to be nominated," he said good naturedly, "and it is.  But you also want to win!"

Free's chances of that may have actually improved with his latest disc, "Seasons".  Free’s always had a  knack for arrangement. But on this album, he may I have the biggest sound I've ever heard from him.  On songs like "Grandma's Homemade Cherry Pie", a whimsical tune about anticipating a sweet treat at the end of a long day,' a twangy, almost-psychedelic, guitar part winds through the hillbilly swing fiddles and steel. It almost feels like it's a winking nod to the "natural high", granny's homemade pie would put you on, making light of those musical tropes. Maybe that wasn't Free's intention, but it definitely lends a layer of musical complexity and interest to the tune that draws you back fora second 'listen, and a third. With past Free releases that hasn't always been the case for me. I've enjoyed them. There has been a song or two that I would go back to on past releases, but with this disc I find myself going back to songs that might not necessarily appeal to me in different arrangements. If you've seen Steve live, with just his voice and his guitar, and that is all you know of him, you owe, it to yourself, to give it a listen. That isn't the experience you get with this album. Lt never has been with his albums, but on this one the instrumentation, the arrangement, and the sound quality are phenomenal. On the traditional folk song "Pay, Me My Money Down", one we've all heard covered a million times, Steve, goes for a more sparse arrangement than some of the others on the album, with their soaring fiddles and trilling mandolins. It's still got a full band, but the harmonica, and the harmony chorus and deep baritone echo, give a nod to the style popularized by the 60s folk revival that informs a lot of Free's style.  On "Wan Tenna Hey", a tune inspired by Free's Native-American roots, the flute playing, complemented by percussion and guitar, echoes the vocals. It's got a driving rhythm' and the flute has a beautiful tone, that makes it appealing, even if that type of tune doesn't normally appeal to you.

Free's nod to his roots' in nothing unusual in his music. He explained that the Native music is what he loves to do. 'It's largely the basis of the programs he provides to school children across the state each year.  The inclusion of at least one Native American themed tune on each album has been his personal indulgence, he explained. Something he did because it's what he loves, not because it is what generates sales. But the other angle, that folk angle, rooted in his love of southern Ohio and her people, and the experiences of their lives, that is part ot what has made him successful. It's a touch of authenticity that makes Free speak to those people who do connect Seasons CDto songs and his performances.  It was a lesson he learned long ago.  He explained it through a story about Charlie Daniels.  Daniels, long ago, had been on Fraternity, the label that Steve has called home for most of his career. At that time Daniels wanted nothing more than, to be a blues musician.  He was good at it, Free explained. Good enough to be a Nashville session musician,  musician, playing on albums by Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen.  But being "good" isn’t enough. What Daniels had to do was find what he could do that no one else could.  He had to find that thing that spoke to his audiences. For Daniels, it was the country sound.  He might have wanted to be a bluesman, but he was the guy recommended to Dylan and Dylan wanted a country sound. Once Daniels embraced that, Free told me, he came into his own as an artist.  It was when Free learned to embrace his knack for folk, and  his love of his southern Ohio home (as evidenced in his track "Portsmouth Ohio” on the new disc, that he really began to find the sound and formula that has worked for him.
That sound is probably at the best I've heard it on this album, and that is due In part to Free finding the right he people to work with.  While a lot of  his previous albums had been beautifully 'and lovingly mastered by John Eberle, who has worked mostly in the bluegrass and Americana fields, this time Free sent his work to be mastered by five time  Grammy winner, Alan Silverman of Artf Mastering.  Free was Initially skeptical of working with Silverman.  Though he was a five time Grammy winner, those wins were all in the jazz category.  He wasn’t sure that Silverman could understand his music the way someone like Eberle had.  But Silverman isn’t a one trick pony.  Sure, he won awards for jazz.  But he’s also worked with artists as diverse as Dolly Parton, Cheap Trick, and the Kinks.  Once he started hearing what Silverman could do, Free was convinced it’s paid off.  The new album sounds better than anything I’ve heard from Free before.

Ironically, this biggest sounding album comes at a time when Free admits he’s on the ‘downside’ of his career.  He doesn’t really tour the country anymore, preferring to stick close to home, playing local events and focusing on his songwriting and recording, as well as his school outreach.  Maybe that, more than the mastering, is what makes “Seasons” so compelling.  It’s obvious that Steve was feeling both introspective and reflective throughout the songs on this album.  But they aslo speak very strongly of southern Ohio and the people and values and history of the region.  They do it in a way that is both niche, and speaks to common human themes at the same time.  Maybe this is why, despite never winning that Grammy, Steve’s popularity with folk and Americana enthusiasts around  the workd remains so high.

“He’s no Bobby Dylan,” said late Fraternity Records President Shad O’Shea, “But every day, somewhere in the world, a Steve Free song is being played on the radio.”

Is there rally any more anyone could ask for?  As a folk singer and songwriter, Free explained, all he could really hope for is that his songs touch someone.  That they identify with it and that it is meaningful to them.  Awards, recognition, it’s all nice and good.  But what really matters is connecting with an audience.  With music, and with words.  Because, ultimately, as his closing song of the disc notes “our lives are but a circle, ever changing like the season.”